How Social are Social Games and Gamers?

Mark Stephens

Wikipedia says ‘social gaming commonly refers to playing games as a way of social interaction, as opposed to playing games in solitude.’ Tens of thousands of games now fall under this category (there were almost 200,000 games on the iStore at the end of 2013) but the irony is that many of these games ARE played in solitude.


The Social Family

Back in the day, when electronic gaming started out, the likes of the Binatone Pong game needed two family members to battle it out on the simulated ‘tennis court’( well, a screen with two bars and a ball).

As gaming technology evolved into more elaborate consoles connected to the TV, the two player concept kept a social component as you had to be connected to the same device in the same room as your opponent, as you beat them senseless on Street Fighter II.

Back to the present. My wife plays ‘social games’ like Candy Crush and Hay Day as well as a variety of other matching games and she is always tucked away in a corner with a ‘Do not Disturb’ sign hung over her iPad. Not my idea of social, to be honest. I don’t think she has ever interacted with a real human being on any of those games.

My son plays Heroes of Newerth – not technically a ‘social game’. It is a ‘child’ of the Warcraft genre, classified as a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) video game and is played on a PC. The social interaction involved in this game is far more than in the ‘social’ games. He needs to team up with real human beings and plan strategy, as it requires a team of players to bring down the opponent, who he communicates with through a mike or headset. It is possible to form real ‘offline’ friendships through interactions made in these types of games. Quite social, I think you’ll agree.

Redefining ‘Social’?

‘Social’ these days seems to refer to the ‘potential’ or ‘ability’ to be social rather than actually doing it!

For instance, a social game with a network of a million players has endless potential for social interactions and connections. These vast networks let you challenge others, notify them of scores and connect with them via messaging, voice, video and so on. Yet how many of us actually do that?

Yes, if you’re playing poker on Facebook, there are long pauses between laying cards so there may be more of an opportunity and reason to chat with the other players. Simply to ease the boredom in many cases.

But many of the farm tending or popular matching games involve relatively short sessions played while waiting for the kettle to boil or a bus to turn up. They may also be quick-fire, so the opportunity for chewing the fat with one of the zillion other players is limited.

Perhaps the ‘social’ in ‘social games’ refers to the social nature of players rather than their actual interactions within the game. Again using my wife as the example, she is not social in the games she plays but is far more ‘sociable’ than me in real life.

This is backed up by a recent study by popular video game network Twitch, which is said to be the subject of Google takeover interest. The study suggests that gamers tend to be more social and more successful than the non-gaming population! This is from the Washington Post:

‘…gamers are more likely to be living with other people such as family, friends or significant others, and are more likely to agree with the statement: my friends are the most important thing in my life.’

Is this a Good or Bad Thing?

Old school gamers might find this so-called social revolution a little fake. Newcomers love the fact that you can pit your wits against someone else in the next bedroom, or over the other side of the world, without actually having to make any effort…or even talk to them.

This Guardian article recently suggested that these trends are a bad thing:

‘But something’s missing from this kind of geographically isolated online play. Sure, it means you can enjoy these games even when your pals aren’t in town, and encourages the kind of epic, persistent-world gaming that never would have been possible offline, but it lacks the fundamental silliness of real-life interaction.’

Perhaps gaming is just reflecting the way of the world. It has taken modern technology and lifestyles, combined them with many of the great gaming principles, added a few innovations into the mix, and created an addictive environment aimed at pulling in large numbers of people.

It seems to be working too.